Sunday, February 23, 2020
Home Blog

Hellfighter: The Story of Trenton’s Flawed War Hero

Needham Roberts of Trenton, pictured seated to the right of fellow World War I hero Henry Johnson.

On April 6, 1917, the United States joined the Great War on the side of the Allied powers, offering hope that America’s might could break a stalemate that had locked the nations of Europe in a bloody stalemate since August, 1914. Millions of American soldiers boarded ships and sailed over U-Boat-infested waters to fight in the hell that was trench warfare. Of those men, 116,000 were killed and 320,000 were wounded.

The first Americans to join the war were black “buffalo soldiers” who fought in segregated units. Unlike in the subsequent war, where they were not allowed, African-Americans were organized into fighting infantry regiments and sent into combat.

Trenton-based re-enactor Algernon Ward Jr. has dedicated himself to portraying one of those buffalo soldiers, Needham Roberts, a black teenager from Trenton who earned France’s highest military honor for valor in combat, the Croix de Guerre.

Ward, a Trenton activist, former school board member, and former City Council candidate, is best known as a re-enactor who portrays black soldiers at the Old Barracks museum, and at area schools and various history events. In 2016 Ward made headlines when he came under real gunfire, not on the battlefield, but near his North Trenton home. A stray bullet from a shooting down the street hit Ward in the shoulder. Ward, who recovered from the injury, vowed not to leave Trenton due to the violence in his neighborhood. “If they shoot me in the right shoulder, I am going to swing with my left,” he told reporters.

Ward will be one of many re-enactors portraying black soldiers at an upcoming event at Trenton’s Old Barracks museum. “Four Centuries of African-American Soldiers” takes place Saturday, and Sunday, February 29 and March 1, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be re-enactors of soldiers all the way from the Revolutionary War up to the first Gulf War. Ward will give a presentation on Sunday at 2:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.barracks.org.

Needham (Sometimes spelled “Neadom”) Roberts grew up on Wilson Street in Trenton, a side street off Pennington Avenue near Union Baptist Church in North Trenton. His father was Reverend Norman Roberts. By age 15 he had already worked as a bellhop and a soda jerk at a drugstore. When the U.S. joined the war, Roberts jumped at the chance to join the Army. His father had given him money to pay a poll tax (a tax to discourage poor people and African-Americans from voting) but instead he used it to make his way to Albany, where he joined the 15th New York National Guard, an all-black regiment known as the Black Rattlers.

Ward, who has seemingly read everything ever published on Roberts, says the young man was drawn to this particular regiment because of its famous band. “The National Guard at the time was a cushy job,” Ward explained. “You would show up on a couple of weekends and get a nice little check. If it’s not wartime, you march around a little and it’s a part-time job.”

In those cushy pre-war years, the Rattlers’ secret weapon was their band, led by James Reese Europe, a star of the Harlem jazz scene who had become what Ward describes as “The Jay-Z of his time” by having the band play his unique ragtime style of music in New York venues. “He was highly sought after during this period,” Ward says.

Because of the Rattler band’s popularity, the 15th New York met its 1,000-man recruitment goal almost immediately and was thus one of the first units that was ready to be shipped overseas. Before the regiment could be sent into the meat grinder of the Western Front, however, they had to train, and that is where the Rattlers’ difficulties began.

The unit was sent to training at Camp Whitman, in upstate New York. By October it was getting cold. Ordinarily this posed no difficulty, as the camp had cold-weather barracks facilities, but the camp’s commandant would only let white soldiers stay there. He told the Rattlers to set up camp outside.

The Rattlers’ white officers did not relish the prospect of spending the winter in freezing cold tents, so they had the unit transferred to a warmer climate: Spartanburg, South Carolina.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters, was an American unit that fought with French weapons and equipment under French command when it first arrived at the front. Modern-day re-enactors like Algernon Ward (far right) portray this unique unit.

Unfortunately, this was “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” The United States at the time was still deeply segregated, nowhere more so than the Deep South. Spartanburg was a “sundown town” where black people were not welcome to walk the streets at night and could be beaten up or arrested for doing so. The Rattlers were used to the slightly better race relations that existed in places like Harlem, where they were raised. “They didn’t know that you didn’t look a white person in the face,” Ward said. “They didn’t know that you had to step off the curb when a white person was coming … They just didn’t have that upbringing, so there was some culture clash that was going on there.”

The Rattlers soon got into conflicts with the civilians of Spartanburg as well as other Army units training there. One of the soldiers was beat up in town. Meanwhile, one of the other units at the base had a history of its own that went back to the Civil War, where they had fought for the Confederacy against the 15th New York. The two units started trading threats. One of the Rattler’s officers, Hamilton Fish, said he would issue live ammo to his men if any of the southerners came to his camp looking for trouble.

The War Department, eager to avoid bloodshed between its own units, sent the Rattlers back north to New Jersey at the first opportunity. There, they helped build facilities at Camp Dix (which later became Fort Dix).

In early 1918 the Rattlers embarked for Europe aboard a converted coal transport called the Pocahontas. White regiments making the voyage had been sent off with pomp and circumstance, but the black soldiers left New York under cover of night with only their wives and girlfriends at the dock to see them off.

The ship was beset by delays, first by pea-soup fog that trapped them in New York harbor, then by an engine fire that forced them back to port for repairs. When they next voyaged out, a barge slammed into the vessel, knocking a 12-foot hole in its side. Unwilling to go back to port again, the crew made repairs during the crossing to France.

When the Rattlers disembarked, they were greeted by a whole new social order. While they were often treated with disdain at home, the French greeted them with cheers and gifts. The French also appreciated American culture, especially the new jazz music that Europe’s band was playing. The band played concerts all over France and Switzerland and was even invited to play at Buckingham Palace in England.

The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Black Jack Pershing, tried to discourage this warm welcome. In a secret letter to his French counterparts, the American commander warned French generals not to compliment black soldiers too highly, especially in front of white officers, and to keep women away from them because, he said, they had a penchant for rape. He further asked the French not to treat them too well, lest they become spoiled when they eventually returned home. The letter was leaked and was widely published, including by an outraged black press back in the United States.

The Rattlers were inducted into the regular army and designated the 369th Infantry Regiment. At first, they were tasked with doing labor such as unloading ships. But the French, having lost millions of men already in the war, were desperate for manpower to feed into the war machine.

The Americans, still arriving and still training for war, were not ready for battle at that point. But Pershing, while he generally insisted on keeping American troops under American control, agreed to put the 369th under the command of the French, who issued them French weapons and equipment and trained them alongside French soldiers. Officers even issued commands to the men in French.

That is how the 369th ended up being one of the first American units to see combat in the trenches of northern France.

During this time, the black fighters developed a reputation for bravery, bolstered in great part by the actions of Roberts and a fellow soldier, Henry Johnson.

Roberts and Johnson were stationed in the Argonne forest, where French and Germans, each dug in trenches, faced one another across the deadly expanse of no man’s land, a ruined and cratered landscape swept by machine gun fire and churned into muck by the explosions of artillery shells.

One night the two soldiers were stationed at the midnight to 4 a.m. shift at an isolated listening post, where their job was to watch for the approach of enemy raiders. Shortly into their shift, the two were forced to take cover from German snipers. Soon, Johnson heard the “snip snip” sound of someone cutting barbed wire: the Germans were attacking the isolated position.

The African American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment fought for a country that did not treat them as equals.

Roberts and Johnson started throwing grenades, and the unseen Germans replied in kind, causing an explosion that injured and stunned Roberts. The German patrol advanced on the two men, intent on capturing Roberts and bringing him back as a prisoner. Heavily outnumbered, Johnson fought back using his rifle as a club and stabbing with his huge, meat cleaver-like bolo knife that French soldiers carried.

Eventually Roberts recovered and started throwing grenades, but both had been hit by gunshots and shrapnel from the enemy. The Germans, having had enough of Johnson’s hand-to-hand fighting and Roberts’ grenades, retreated. The next morning, French soldiers estimated the size of the enemy force at around 20 men, with the two American soldiers having killed four.

Roberts and Johnson became the first Americans to earn France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, for their valor. The American press seized on the story, too, as an early story of American bravery and fighting spirit.

The rest of the unit acquitted itself well in combat, earning the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Due to the severity of their wounds, Roberts and Johnson were taken off the front lines to recover. After eventually returning home, they toured the country raising war bonds. Along the way, their story became exaggerated. Henry Johnson, at five foot six and 135 pounds, was given the nickname “The Black Death.”

“This is not a hulking, muscular figure,” Ward says. “This was a normal-sized guy. When you’re fighting desperately for your life, you can be a pretty dangerous person.” With each retelling, the number of Germans who attacked “The Black Death” seemed to increase.

Upon returning to the U.S., black soldiers faced the same prejudice that had been there when they left. Absurdly, Roberts was denied a purple heart medal because an officer at a hospital in Cape May refused to acknowledge that black soldiers had fought in battle at all.

When the rest of the Harlem Hellfighters came back, they were welcomed as heroes with a ticker-tape parade in New York. But even this was marred by reminders of a divided society: the disembarking soldiers were faced with a sign on the pier directing whites in one direction, blacks in another.

Needham Roberts returned to Trenton, where the citizens hailed him as a hero. The city threw him a parade and gave him a gold watch. A newspaper surveyed Trentonians on what they liked most about their city, and one of the more frequent responses was its association with war hero Needham Roberts.

“They said, ‘oh, we don’t like the dirty streets and the pigs in the yard, but Roberts is from Trenton and he won the Croix de Guerre. So he was a source of pride for the community,” Ward says.

Together, he and Johnson earned a living by telling their story during intermission at silent movies.

Unfortunately, the two soldiers’ glory quickly faded.

Roberts was arrested, accused of molesting two girls, aged 12 and 14. He was acquitted of the charges but suspicion took a toll on his life. His wife left him, and he had difficulty finding work.

He and Johnson quarreled over who did what in the battle. Roberts eventually wrote his own pamphlet in which it was he who saved Johnson rather than the other way around.

The two of them were arrested for wearing their Army uniforms after being discharged from the military.

Johnson descended into alcohol abuse and died 10 years after the war in a VA hospital. In 1949 Roberts, then remarried, was accused of bothering a young girl at a movie theater. Before he could be tried for this crime, he and his new wife hung themselves in the basement of their home in Newark.

Despite his fall from grace, memory of the man Roberts once was apparently had not completely faded: more than 500 people attended his funeral.

“The point here is that human beings are imperfect, period,” Ward says. “Even our heroes have flaws, period. That’s what makes history so fascinating. It’s the story of what human beings did under certain circumstances. And if we look for the perfect hero, I don’t think we’ll ever find it … There was one perfect guy we knew about, and they hung him on a cross, so everyone else is going to have flaws. And it’s for us as re-enactors and history buffs to tell the story as it is.”

Four Centuries of African American Soldiers, Old Barracks Museum, 101 Barrack Street, Trenton. Saturday and Sunday, February 29 and March 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10. 609-396-1776 or www.barracks.org.

The schedule of events is as follows:

Saturday, February 29:

Stories of the 54th. Reenactor Sergeant Major Louis Carter Jr. shares the true stories of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment that was featured in the movie “Glory.” 11 a.m.

They Were Good Soldiers. Historian John U. Rees discusses the contributions of African American Soldiers in the Continental Army from his book, “They Were Good Soldiers.” 1:15 p.m.

The 5th Platoon. U.S. Marine Corps veteran and reenactor Sergeant Art Collins recalls the exploits of the Black GIs who served during World War II. 2:15 p.m.

Four Centuries of African American Soldiers Firing Line. Soldiers fire a salute to the fallen heroes who faithfully served in the Armed Forces of the United States. 3 p.m.

Sunday, March 1:

Ebony Doughboys in The Great War. Reenactor Kelly Washington shares the stories of African American soldiers in World War I. 11 a.m.

Black Jacks. U.S. Navy veteran and reenactor Leon B. Brooks tells the saga of America’s Black sailors. 1:15 p.m.

Trenton’s Harlem Hellfighter. Reenactor Algernon Ward Jr. tells the story of one of the first Americans decorated for valor in World War I, Trenton’s own hero, Needham Roberts. 2:15 p.m.

Four Centuries of African American Soldiers Firing Line. Soldiers fire a salute to the fallen heroes who faithfully served in the Armed Forces of the United States. 3:15 p.m.

To hear more about Needham Roberts and other fascinating and obscure stories from Central New Jersey’s past, listen to our podcast called “Forgotten History,” which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts or at soundcloud.com/forgottenhistory.

Audio Directions Wins TechLaunch BullPen Prize

Audio Directions’ technology is in use at the 9/11 Museum in New York City.

Go to most public buildings, and you will see modifications intended to make them more accessible to the disabled: wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and other provisions are a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated that public spaces accommodate people with disabilities.

But there is at least one disability that the ADA accommodations have ignored: hearing. Despite the fact that hearing loss is a disability under the ADA, public spaces can be especially hard to use for people who have hearing impairments.

Hearing aids, while useful, tend to amplify background noise as well as the conversations for which they are intended.

A Hopewell-based company, Audio Directions, is producing devices intended to remedy this problem.

“There are close to 50 million people with hearing loss in the U.S.” said Nigel Gardner, founder and CEO of Audio Directions. “Hearing aids work very well except for noisy situations. If you go into a restaurant — and I understand this, by the way, because I have hearing loss myself — you can’t hear a darn thing because hearing aids amplify background noise as well.”

Audio Directions has developed products that take advantage of a feature that exists in most hearing aids — the T-coil, which allows the aids to receive radio transmissions. Audio Directions’ products allow speakers to talk into a microphone and send a signal directly to a person with a hearing aid. When the T-coil detects a signal, it turns off external amplification, so it’s like the speaker is talking directly to the person they intend. The signal is directional so it can be picked up by the targeted recipient and no one else.

For example, Audio Directions makes a mat that can be installed in locations such as banks and pharmacies. The pharmacist can talk into a microphone and the person on the mat can hear their voice in their hearing aids.

Audio Directions has installed equipment in the 9/11 Museum, the Holocaust Museum, Princeton Public Library, and other locations. It is also in talks with several area hospitals.

Audio Directions founder Gardner believes there is a huge market for audio assistive technology in public places, given that it is an un-acknowledged mandate of the ADA.

“I would say there is less than 1 percent compliance across the country dealing with people with hearing loss,” he said. “There has not been a major lawsuit to force people to pay attention to this. Enforcement is just minimal.”

The company recently received support after winning an investment pitch contest.

Audio Directions was chosen out of several area competitors in the “TechLaunch BullPen 16” event, in which a panel of investors gave out awards. First prize came with $15,000 of professional services and gave the company a ticket to pitch at Jumpstart NJ Angel Network and NJ’s Tech Council Ventures.

“The whole experience with TechLaunch and the BullPen was very positive. Although a seasoned entrepreneur I found the mentoring very helpful and I am sure it contributed to Audio Directions being the major winner at the event. The attendees included several investors, and I appreciated being able to get our company’s business opportunity in front of people who could help fuel the journey.

“I’m also grateful for the free legal and mentoring services as well as the opportunity to pitch to specific investment groups. I encourage anyone going through the challenge of growing an early stage business to apply for this program,” Gardner said.

Audio Directions, PO Box 370, Hopewell 08525. 833-234-4411. Nigel Gardner, founder and CEO. www.ad4h.com

On the Move: NJHA, Trac, Chamber, and Deaths

Two new studies released by the New Jersey Hospital Association say hospitals are economic anchors of their communities, providing more than $24.7 billion in total contributions to the state’s economy, including $3.2 billion in contributions to promote community well-being.

NJHA’s 2020 Economic Impact Report and 2020 Community Benefit Report provide 2018 data aggregating the economic and community benefits delivered by the state’s hospitals, including more than 154,000 jobs.

“The health of New Jersey residents relies on both the economic underpinnings of good jobs and economic investments, along with commitment to community programs and social determinants of health,” said NJHA president and CEO Cathy Bennett. “New Jersey hospitals provide both, in abundance. They are anchor institutions that support the well-being of communities all across our state.”

The 2020 Economic Impact Report provides data gathered through 2018 N.J. Acute Care Hospital Cost Reports. In addition to statewide totals, the report also provides breakdowns by county and by individual hospital. Key findings include:

New Jersey hospitals recorded $24.7 billion in total expenditures in 2018, an increase of more than $1 billion from the 2017 total of $23.6 billion. Those expenditures ripple throughout state and local economies, including $3.7 billion in goods and services purchased from other businesses.

“Hospitals make sizeable contributions to their communities. In fact, looking at these two reports side by side shows that hospitals’ community benefit contributions represent 13 percent of their total economic activity,” said Sean Hopkins, senior vice president of NJHA’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation.

New Jersey Hospital Association (NJHA), 760 Alexander Road, Box 1, Princeton 08543. 609-275-4000. Cathy Bennett, president & CEO. www.njha.com.

Management Moves

Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce, 600 Alexander Road, Suite 3-2, Princeton 08540. 609-924-1776. Peter Crowley, CEO. www.princetonmercerchamber.org.

The Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce has hired Warrie Howell as director of events.

Her responsibilities will include managing and directing the chamber’s signature events, in addition to working with the Convention & Visitors Bureau, Disney Leadership Program and exploring new event opportunities.

“Warrie’s prior chamber experience coupled with her expertise and insight of managing her own event business, complements the outstanding staff of the chamber,” said Brenda Ross-Dulan, chair of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber.

“We look forward to the expertise Warrie brings that will assist us in our promise of building a better-connected business community for our region,” said Peter Crowley, CEO of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber.

Acquisition

Trac Intermodal (IPX), 750 College Road East, Princeton 08540. 609-452-8900. Steve Rubin, COO. www.tracintermodal.com.

Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners is buying TRAC Intermodal and its subsidiaries from investment funds managed by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC. The transaction will provide TRAC with a new sponsor and support for future growth. TRAC’s existing management team will continue to run the business in their current capacities.

TRAC operates a fleet of marine chassis, which are devices that allow trucks to carry shipping containers from seagoing vessels

TRAC currently operates 180,000 marine chassis nationwide and has a broad operating footprint of more than 650 locations. TRAC subsidiaries offer nationwide tire and parts supply through TRAC Tire Services, emergency fleet roadside assistance through FYX, and maintenance, repair, and depot solutions through TRAC Services.

“We are excited to have Stonepeak as our new sponsor,” says Jennifer Polli, president and CEO at TRAC. “We welcome the operational and capital support that Stonepeak will provide. Their deep experience and relationships in North America will help fuel our continued growth and reinforce our industry leadership position in providing the highest quality products, reliable equipment and best-in-class customer service to the marine intermodal and transportation industries.”

“Stonepeak is pleased to partner with TRAC Intermodal to build upon its position as an industry leading critical intermodal infrastructure provider. Our focus will be on continuing to provide TRAC’s customer base with best-in-class service solutions while also pursuing new commercial opportunities across the value-chain through our industry relationships,” said Luke Taylor, executive committee member, and James Wyper, senior managing director, both of Stonepeak.

Deaths

Howard M. Berger, 77, on February 17. He was the proprietor of Building Maintenance Systems in Hamilton and was involved in many organizations.

William Joseph Byrne, 21, on February 11. He was a graduate of Ewing High School, and was close to finishing his associate’s degree in horticulture at Mercer County Community College and was employed at Four Paws Inc. in Morrisville.

Picture Perfect Musician Stringing with Roosevelt Band

Phil McAuliffe.

Talk about pursuing challenging occupations: Trenton native Phil McAuliffe has had plenty of experience as a struggling musician and freelance photographer.

Yet he is lucky to have found a comfortable level of success with two of his passions and will be playing bass and singing backup vocals with David Brahinsky and the Roosevelt String Band on Sunday, February 23, at Morven in Princeton.

A bassist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter, McAuliffe was born in Trenton and raised in Allentown. His late father, Charles, was an architect and visual artist. His artist mother lives in Browns Mills and works with horses and paints.

“Maybe even more so than my father, my mother really supported my musical career all along,” McAuliffe says during a recent interview. “I wasn’t very good at first, but they both supported me.”

About the same time the music bug bit him, so did the photography bug. Initially, his interest was in photographing musicians and getting to hang out with national touring acts backstage.

“I started photography as a hobby as a teenager and began going to concerts. I began doing some freelance work for the Mercer Messenger. The editor’s name was Wayne Davis. He used to get me press passes for concerts. I’d go down to the Spectrum in Philly. Some of the times I was more interested in getting backstage,” he says.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s he did a lot of work as a roadie, sound man, and light man for various Trenton-area bands, including those of veteran Hamilton guitar teacher and studio owner Ernie White. His interest in photography really took off while he was attending Mercer County Community College.

“I was in my 20s when I was photographing a lot of these bands and getting to meet them. It was very inspirational. It was everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Allman Brothers to Genesis. I got to see Led Zeppelin on one of their tours, so that inspired me. I picked up the guitar mainly to write songs.”

He says he also played bass and got into some garage bands.

McAuliffe, whose wife, Cathy, works in the insurance business, lives in the Mercerville section of Hamilton. He cites everyone from Tom Petty to Bruce Springsteen to Heart to newcomer country artist Chris Stapleton as his songwriting influences, but more recently he has discovered the beauty of traditional American folk songs.

He says his first big break as a struggling musician came with a trio called Rox from the Princeton area. “Andy Haley and Brian Jeffries used to play with Montana Mining Company. I was lucky enough to get in a band with these guys, and I learned so much.” The band’s venues included John & Peter’s in New Hope and the Tin Lizzie Garage in Kingston.

He moved to Clearwater, Florida, for a time with Rox and then got involved with a Miami-area band called Lix, which had a big following on Miami’s vibrant club scene back in the mid-1980s.

“While I was in Florida I started doing freelance photo work for local paper north of Fort Lauderdale, and they were about to start flying the space shuttle again [after the Challenger disaster in 1986], and I had driven up the coast to see that launch. I managed to get a press pass to see the next launch.”

There, he met photographer Scott Andrews, who worked with Nikon at the Space Center, “and we ended up doing a lot of remote photography,” he says.

“That whole experience got me seriously into photography. There were so many professional photographers around. You could go to the bookstore and find their books and there they were, working next to you at Kennedy Space Center. I got into photojournalism and kept doing that, and that ended up being my career outside of music.”

Once he came back to the area he found a job at the Princeton Packet and worked there for two decades, finally as photo editor, while continuing to go back to the space center in Florida for additional freelance work. His big break with photography came in 2005 when he hooked up with an agency, Polaris Images, in New York.

While his musical career may appear to have entered dormancy while he was working at the Packet, he says he has never stopped writing his own songs. Finally, just a few years ago, he released a debut disc of his own songs, accompanied by some of the top-shelf musicians from the Trenton-Princeton corridor. His disc, “The Great Road,” of all original songs, was recorded at White’s home studio in Hamilton and released in 2017.

Phil McAuliffe in back with Guy DeRosa, front left, Noemi Bolton, and David Brahinsky.

Of Sunday’s matinee gig at Morven, McAuliffe says the Roosevelt String Band is basically David Brahinsky’s baby.

It is named for the small, politically active Monmouth County borough launched as a workers cooperative in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression.

The performance complements Morven’s current exhibition, “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey.”

Says McAuliffe: “I met David years ago when I was photographing him for the Princeton Packet. I told him I played bass, and I ran into him a year or so later at an Arlo Guthrie concert at McCarter. I saw him in the lobby, and he asked if I would be interested in joining him for a gig, and I‘ve been playing with him ever since.”

“I was pretty much ready to quit playing bass, but he began teaching me a lot of these old folk songs. One of the things that opened my eyes, writing-wise, was that these folk songs had amazing lyrics. So I kept writing new songs, and since the early 2000s I’ve come up with a whole new catalog of originals.”

Aside from Brahinsky on lead vocals and guitar and McAuliffe on fretless electric bass, the Roosevelt String Band includes Guy DeRosa on harmonicas, Paul Prestopino (son of the late Roosevelt artist Gregorio Prestopino) on acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and a variety of other instruments, and sometimes Noemi Bolton on acoustic guitar and short-neck banjo.

“With Roosevelt String Band, David will always pick new material, so it’s basically a new set list every time we play,” he says, noting the band has done themed shows with the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and others.

Of his own disc, “The Great Road,” which he sells at the smaller coffee house gigs he has come to appreciate, he credits White with a phenomenal job producing the album.

“I’ve got some good players on the record: Steve Mosely, a drummer who plays with David Bromberg, he’s great; I played bass and sang; and Guy DeRosa plays some harmonica; and then Jeff Gunther and Paul Prestopino played on some tracks. Lisa Bouchelle sings with me on a few tracks, and that’s like comparing my rusty nail voice next to a diamond.”

Sunday’s show at Morven “will be a variety of folk music by a variety of artists, most of them pretty well-known.” Appropriately so – no folk music purists here — Brahinsky and others involved in Roosevelt String Band assume a broad definition of folk music. Sunday’s repertoire will include tunes by Bill Withers, Johnny Cash, Chris Smither, Eric Andersen, Tom Waits, Stan Rogers, and older traditional tunes like “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Looking back on what is now more than four decades in music and photography, McAuliffe says there is a connection between the two art forms. As a photographer, he has won awards for photos from 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Superstorm Sandy, and Kosovo refugees in 1999.

“For me the connection with music and photography is I’ve written a lot of songs based on experiences I’ve had as a photographer. I’ve seen a lot of things first-hand that most people maybe only would see on TV. I’ve been there, so there are a lot of songs I’ve written that touch on or were influenced by these events.”

Roosevelt String Band, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Sunday, February 23, 2 p.m. $10. The exhibition “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt” is on view through May 10. Wednesdays through Sundays, $8 to $10. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.

Dance Review: American Repertory Ballet’s ‘Giselle’

At center, Journy Wilkes-Davis as Albrecht and Nanako Yamamoto as Giselle.

“Giselle” reigns as the supreme exemplar of Romantic era ballets, those 19th-century narrative works depicting some poor chap’s pursuit of an ideal, unattainable female creature whose mesmerizing ethereality situates her somewhere beyond our terrestrial human existence.

Not just in ballet, but across musical, literary, and visual arts, Romantics prized the emotional and spiritual realms over the real and the rational. Yet while they proffered convincing drama and displayed solid ballet technique, in their affecting, new production of “Giselle,” presented last weekend at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet came up short in conjuring Romanticism.

The beloved ballet tells the tale of a young peasant woman, Giselle, who falls in love with Albrecht, a nobleman masquerading as a commoner. When he breaks her heart, she goes mad and dies. But in the end her enduring love saves Albrecht from the wilis — the ghostly spirits of jilted females who seek revenge by forcing men to dance until they die.

Choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, to achingly beautiful music by Adolphe Adam, “Giselle” premiered in Paris in 1841. ARB’s production, danced to an exciting recording of Adam’s score, features the traditional Coralli-Perrot choreography, here staged by company ballet master Ian Hussey, along with Aydmara Cabrera, Jose Manuel Carreno, and Ana Novoa — three Cubans with notable links to “Giselle’s” history.

Director of ARB’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School, Cabrera was a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba under the direction of former ballerina Alicia Alonso, who is considered among the greatest Giselles of the 20th century. Novoa also danced with the National Ballet of Cuba, where she performed the role of Giselle. And ballet superstar Carreno (often partnered with Novoa) performed the role of Albrecht with both the English National Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

In coaching ARB’s dancers, this artistic team appears to have emphasized the emotional aspects of the ballet. At the matinee performance I attended on February 15, I was struck by how well-acted it was.

Too often in story ballets, one sees phenomenal displays of physical prowess from young dancers who mar their performances with unbearably phony acting. But not here. From the moment Journy Wilkes-Davis steps onstage in the role of the disguised Albrecht, you can tell the character’s a weasel. As Hilarion, a peasant gamekeeper enamored of Giselle, Daniel Cooke manages to elicit genuine sympathy. And top acting honors go to Emily Parker, who, in the thankless role of Bathilde, Albrecht’s intended, finds the right combination of elegance, warmth, and superiority to express the nuanced character of a patronizingly generous person of privilege.

Only Nanako Yamamoto, as Giselle, disappoints in the acting department, though she shows complete command of the role’s technical requirements. Unlike the principal role in the classical-period ballet “Swan Lake” — which in large part measures technique — “Giselle” presents a wider-ranging test of a ballerina’s expressive capabilities. She must first exude vulnerability as the innocent young peasant, go furiously insane in a wildly dramatic mad scene, then communicate a chilling other-worldliness as a wili ethereally performing fiendishly difficult footwork.

Effectively hysterical in her mad scene, Yamamoto dances throughout with a strong, streamlined precision that underlines the classical beauty of her movements. Yet rather than alter her physicality, she conveys her youth through pouty, wide-eyed facial expressions that look babyish and feel dated. We’ve moved past the notion that young women should ever act like children.

Yet more importantly, when Giselle returns as a wili in the second act, Yamamoto’s movements don’t soften or lighten enough to embody that ethereal Romantic aesthetic. Nor do anyone else’s. The corps of wilis — though highly impressive in their unison ensemble work — lacks ghostliness. Costumed by Christina Giannini in the signature long white tutus of the Romantic Age, they create stunning visual images, yet feel more like a pretty precision dance troupe than an unearthly cohort of revengeful feminine spirits.

ARB’s “Giselle” is moving and, at times, thrillingly danced, but it’s not as eerily transporting as this Romantic masterpiece should be.

Giselle will be presented again, in partnership with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra at the McCarter Theatre Center on Saturday, May 2, at 2 p.m. www.arballet.org

Letting the Bard’s Words Soar With Love

Paula Alekson of McCarter Theater.

Their voices soared with passion, but the words were what mattered. The Shakespeare Community Reading Group, which meets monthly at McCarter Theater, is not about who reads with flourishes, although there are some beautiful ones. It’s about what is on the page.

On a recent Tuesday night in McCarter’s Lockwood lobby, a happy few, band of brothers and sisters (to paraphrase the St. Crispin’s Day speech in tonight’s play), gathered to read “Henry V,” each reader providing a window into Shakespeare’s wit and wisdom.

Classified as a history play, “Henry V” details the events before and after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War – the final play in the series of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” and “Henry IV, Part 2,” says group coordinator Paula Alekson, McCarter’s artistic engagement manager.

But the lesson stops there. “It’s not what we do,” Alekson says. “It’s about sharing and enjoying the language and the pleasure of reading Shakespeare aloud.”

A round-robin format ensures that all read, letting fate decide parts, but in the course of the evening one may play various parts. She calls it a “democratizing experience. We do not correct one another’s iambic pentameter.”

On this night some 26 readers arrive with scripts in hand, from large hardback, illustrated volumes, to published plays from a local library. Perhaps the oldest volume is used by Fay Lachmann of Princeton. She brings a book that belonged to her father, who received it on June 24, 1914, according to the bookplate, from the London City Council as a school prize “for general diligence.”

Some use Kindles. Some read off their phones. And different editions create some challenges, as sometimes lines have been edited out or given to other characters by the volume’s editor.

Area resident Sharon Cacciabaudo downloads to her iPad so she can adjust the font. An actor and member of SAG-AFTRA, she works mostly out of New York City. Early in 2016, she says, she was recuperating from knee issues and had stepped back from auditioning and film work. She was looking for an acting class at McCarter, but “to my surprise I found the Shakespeare reading group and thought it would be an interesting way to practice and keep my skills fresh while still on the mend.

“Shortly after receiving our first reading assignment from Paula, ‘Richard II,’ I received a message from the Hudson Shakespeare Company (where she had done some work, based in Jersey City) checking my availability to start rehearsal in the spring for a summer tour of ‘Richard II.’ Serendipity! Right then I knew even before the first meeting that this was the group for me.” The group has since read other plays in which she has acted.

Although some, like Cacciabaudo, participated in a reading of “A Christmas Carol” at Princeton Public Library, or have acted in the community ensemble of McCarter’s “A Christmas Carol” and in other plays, the common ground for the diverse group of actors, scholars, and Shakespeare enthusiasts is “we discovered that all of us were in love with his words,” she says.

This is also true for Michael Parker and his wife, Ellen, of Somerville. “I really like the fact that it is only reading. You can let it flow,” says Ellen, who teaches theater as well. “Any exposure to Shakespeare is good.”

Although she and Michael know “Henry V,” they have been reintroduced to some of the passages. “You pay more attention to the words. The attraction here is hearing every single word.”

“People love and are interested in Shakespeare,” Alekson says. The group “is intended to be a casual way to engage with and explore Shakespeare in a safe and friendly environment. There is no perceived expertise. We have regulars and newcomers. We commune, we eat; folks end up going to the theater together.”

While readers come and go, the group has been meeting for five years. Alekson says she received a request from Karen Sisti, college program administrator for Princeton University’s Rockefeller College, seeking space at McCarter for the Shakespeare reading program.

Alekson says Sisti, her community partner and originator of the group, shared that after attending a summer Shakespeare program in England, she wanted to make Shakespeare a daily part of her life, and from this goal, the Shakespeare reading group was born.

“Our response was that maybe they could partner with McCarter, and we would love to use the word ‘community,’” says Alekson. McCarter took over the administration and promotion, including a spreadsheet with names of participants and notifications on the McCarter website.

“We had recently experimented with the concept of community readings with the Princeton Public Library, which encouraged us to engage in this partnership. The library even hosts our annual sonnet slam every November. One year the group read the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! translation of ‘Timon of Athens’ by Kenneth Cavander in tandem with Shakespeare’s text,” says Alekson.

Participant Susan Schwirck says what she loves about the Shakespeare reading group “is the material we read, the informality, the camaraderie, the joy everyone derives from reading and hearing the plays.”

Community members gather to read part of ‘Henry V’ at a recent Shakespeare Community Reading Group Meeting.

She calls Alekson “the glue that keeps the group’s atmosphere convivial . . . Her energy, kindness, and intelligence encompass all who join and create a lively, fun evening.”

Alekson, a playwright, dramaturg, theater historian, and educator, is McCarter’s artistic engagement manager, overseeing artist-audience engagement and community partnership initiatives. She grew up in Southwick, a small town in western Massachusetts, the daughter of an aerospace engineer who was also a layout designer, and a gerontological social worker.

As a youth she became interested in theater by participating in the drama club as an afterschool activity in her school system. “Gratefully, my parents supported my interest in studying theater in college, and I gravitated from performance to playwriting to theater history and teaching,” she said.

Prior to joining McCarter she taught theater studies at Mount Holyoke College. She received an MFA in playwriting from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. from Tufts University. She is a contributing author to James Fisher’s “Tony Kushner: New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays” (McFarland 2006). Her short play “The Breakthrough” was presented at Trenton’s Passage Theatre’s 10-Minute Play Festival in 2010.

The reading group is in keeping with McCarter’s mission to “engage, educate, and entertain our audiences, and to make the arts accessible to all in our community/communities,” says Alekson. “This is, essentially, a different way to engage with McCarter; it’s an extra-performative opportunity — akin to ‘extra-curricular’ in an educational setting — to engage with McCarter and dramatic literature. Our hope is that it allows for the deepening and broadening of participation in McCarter; makes Shakespeare more accessible for any and all persons; and creates community, new friendships, and new connections.

“It can be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually meaningful and moving to interact with a play as a reader — this is, perhaps, our highest ideal — and it can also simply be fun. We always have fun.”

Charles Leeder, an actor who had done Shakespeare professionally for a number of years, is a regular reader. “I have always had a very soft spot in my heart for Shakespeare. He is one of the few authors who basically does all the work for the actor. His dialogue is unparalleled as is his grasp of character,” says Leeder, who has been cast as Friar Lawrence in “Romeo and Juliet” for Shakespeare ‘70; in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Rutgers; in “Winter’s Tale” for Westwind; most recently as Buckingham in “Richard III” for Cage Theatre in New York; and at Hudson Shakespeare in “Henry IV Parts 1 and 2,” “Richard II,” and “Taming of the Shrew.”

The McCarter group, he says, “is a wonderful mix of interesting people who all love to read Shakespeare.”

Love of Shakespeare can last a long time. According to Tom Hunt of Stockton, “Shakespeare is inexhaustible. You see and feel different things at different stages in your life.”

Sharon Seeman, an actor and musician from the area, says she is “always looking for interesting things to do. Reading all of Shakespeare’s plays has been one of my life’s goals. If I stay long enough, I just might.”

The second part of “Henry V” will be read Tuesday, February 25. Other dates are Tuesdays, March 24, April 28, May 26, and June 23.

Shakespeare Community Reading Group, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org. For more information or monthly meetup announcements, email palekson@mccarter.org.

The Artful Eye: Wisdom of Trees

Mary Leck’s image, ‘Pitch Pine Sapsucker Holes.’

Artists and scientists think differently and work toward different goals, but sometimes it is the combination of these pursuits that can lead to the most striking results. That is the philosophy behind “The Wisdom of Trees,” an exhibit at the Tulpehaking Nature Center in Hamilton having an opening reception on Sunday, February 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. The show is on view through July 19.

The show is a collaboration between artist Patricia Bender and scientist Mary Leck, who write that their goals “were to combine our two areas of expertise . . . and explore how these two approaches enhance observation of the obvious and the subtle. How can two divergent views complement one another?

Each offered her own artist’s statement, excerpted below.

‘I have always loved trees,” Patricia Bender writes. “As a child, I loved them naively. They were big and beautiful. They were fun to climb, looking for the perfect spot to settle down and read a good book. They provided a cool and shaded spot during hot summer days. I gave them no thought. They were.

“As I grew older, I loved them intellectually. I began to learn interesting facts about them in biology and natural science classes. They appeared in great literature. I saw their miraculous beauty and complexity depicted in masterpieces of art. Still, I gave them little thought. They were.

“As an adult I have grown to love them passionately. They have provided me with solace and comfort during times of pain and loss. They speak to me of eternal truths on my walks through the woods. I lose my sense of self when I get lost looking up at the play of their leaves.

“When I began to study photography, I found myself photographing trees obsessively. They are my favorite subject. I always see something new when I photograph a tree. They don’t move… all that much. They are constantly changing, eternally beautiful.

“I pay great attention to trees these days. I give them lots of thought. They are.”

Writes Mary Leck: “Trees, without my being aware of it, have long been a part of my experience. I wondered as a child whether the orange seed I’d swallowed, would grow inside me. Later, I had a favorite White Pine I climbed regularly to its very top. The rings of branches were well spaced, perfect for arboreal exploration. We played cowboy and Indians in a pine woods…with real camp fires. In another nearby woods I searched for wild flowers, but knew paper birch, hemlock, beech, and maple trees. Later in other locations, I saw sequoias (CA), kauri trees (NZ), El Trule – a Montezuma cypress (Mexico), and Eucalyptus species (Australia). In a Honolulu (HI) park, there was an enormous tree with votive candles at its base.

“However, it was a sycamore at the Bordentown Beach that made me aware of tree bark growth. I photographed its particularly lovely bark and when I later looked at the photograph, I saw how the bark cracked into patches that peeled, revealing hidden colors and textures, and hinting how the tree accommodated its growth. I hadn’t been paying attention. When I really started looking, I soon realized that all trees do not all respond to growth stresses in the same way. My photographs explore these differences. Bark is remarkable in its variety even on the same tree

“The colors, textures, and patterns of tree bark provide ample opportunities for observation and to ask questions about the physical forces involved and the significance of all that variability. [I wonder whether anyone ever hears the sounds of bark cracking.]

“We can learn from trees, but to understand their wisdom we need to take time, to observe, and to reflect on what we see, to be receptive to the gifts nature provides. We need to wonder, too, about the intricacies of DNA and how trees will meet, for example, the challenges of climate change.”

For more information and related events, visit www.abbottmarshlands.org

Marking a Milestone With ‘Beauty and Drama’

‘At the Piano,’ a self-portrait by Charles McVicker.

Noted Princeton artist Charles McVicker will be celebrating his long career with his Arts Council of Princeton exhibition “McVicker at 90: A Retrospective,” opening with a free reception on Saturday, February 22, from 3 to 5 p.m., and remaining on view through March 14.

The artist’s oil, acrylics, and watercolor paintings have received awards from American Watercolor Society, National Society of Painters in Acrylic and Casein, Phillips Mill Annual, and others and are in the Princeton University and Zimmerli Museum of Art at Rutgers collections.

In a statement, McVicker says the following about his approach:

“Painting has been for me a visual autobiography. I have recorded scenes and events that impressed and excited me. Often these have been quiet situations that otherwise might be overlooked. Wherever I travel I am on the lookout for the beauty and drama of the scene around me. Most contemporary lives are rushed and often hectic. I, many times, choose situations to paint that most people might miss. I feel that an artist is one who really looks. This intense observation is a primary activity of a painter — particularly one who works in the realistic idiom.

Although painting and so-called realism are not in vogue or on the cutting edge of the present-day art world, I profess that I may be in the avant-garde. Cubism and all the other isms that have evolved are 40 to 100 years old. Perhaps it is time to rediscover the American art that evolves from Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper. I claim that heritage.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Opportunities: Volunteer Work and Calls for Creatives

Volunteer

The Tulpehaking Nature Center, the Abbott Marshlands’ education facility, is seeking volunteers to greet and assist visitors, answer questions about the marsh and the Trex Recycling Challenge, discuss upcoming programs and events, and serve as support staff. Training will be provided. Interested volunteers should email akosowski@mercercounty.org. The Tulpehaking Nature Center is located at 157 Westcott Avenue in Trenton.

The New Jersey State House Tour Program is seeking volunteers with an interest in history and civics to conduct tours of the state capital in Trenton. Volunteers should be comfortable speaking in front of groups. No experience is necessary; training will be provided. The next training program will be held in the spring. Interested volunteers can email crogers@njleg.org or call 609-847-3150.

The Jamesburg Public Library is in need of volunteer tutors for its adult English (ESL) classes, small group classes for beginner and intermediate learners. No previous tutoring experience is necessary. For more information email dianeallin@yahoo.com or call the library at 732-521-044. The Jamesburg Public Library is located at 229 Gatzmer Avenue in Jamesburg.

Call for Artwork

Area artists are invited to submit their work to the 37th annual Ellarslie Open Juried Art Show, “Ellarslie Open 37.”

According to curator Joyce Inderbitzin, artists may submit up to six pieces of recently produced work in a variety of mediums, except film and video, to be considered for inclusion in the show. Awards will be given in 10 categories.

Artwork must be submitted between Friday and Sunday, March 20 through 22. Accepted work will be posted on www.ellarslie.org by March 27. For more information, visit www.ellarslie.org/ellarslie-open-37-call.

Health Helpline

The New Jersey Department of Health has set up a public call center to address residents’ questions and concerns about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

The 24-hour hotline, which is being operated by the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, will be staffed by trained healthcare professionals who can accommodate callers in multiple languages.

The Coronavirus hotline can be reached at 1-800-222-1222. For information on CDC updates, travel advisories, and additional information on the Coronavirus, visit www.nj.gov/health/cd/topics/ncov.shtml.

Call for Poetry

NAMI New Jersey, a non-profit organization that supports those affected by mental illness, is now accepting entries for the NAMI NJ Dara Axelrod Expressive Arts Mental Health Poetry Contest 2020.

The contest seeks original poems no longer than 40 lines long based on an annual theme, which this year is the “superpowers” those with mental health challenges use to battle those challenges.

All poems must be submitted by March 25. For more information on the poetry contest, visit www.nami.org/programs.ean/poetry-corner or email poetry@naminj.org.

Call for Artists

A trio of Princeton-based visual artists and residents — Mic Boekelmann, Karen Stolper, and Mary Waltham — are seeking the same to become part of the Princeton Artist Directory (PAD).

Boekelmann, Stolper, and Waltham are compiling the directories to help area artists “connect, collaborate and raise awareness.”

Once the directory is complete, artists will be able to search for fellow artists by name and genre/media. Participation in the directory is free. Any artist interested in being included in the PAD must submit their information by Saturday, February 29.

Applications are available at 08540artist.lwixsite.com/Princeton. Contact information can also be sent to princetonartistdirectory@gmail.com.

Audition

This weekend ActorsNET, a non-profit theater group in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, will hold open auditions for its upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Men and women are needed to fill a variety of roles. Material from the script will be provided to the actors at the audition.

Auditions will take place Saturday, February 22, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., and Sunday, February 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Heritage Center, 635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville. Appointments are recommended; walk-ins will be seen as time allows. Those unable to attend are encouraged to schedule an alternate audition time. “King Lear” performances are scheduled for June. For more information or to schedule an audition, email actorsnet2@comcast.net.